Platonism and Christianity

Outline of lecture series beginning Monday, 9 November 2020


Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Istanbul, Turkey completed in 537 AD.
When Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was completed in 537 AD Constantinople (Istanbul) was the capital of Christendom.

At the heart of the Christian canon is the exemplary man Jesus promoting a way to enlightenment through cryptic parables. Yet the four divergent accounts of his sayings and deeds are devoid of essential Christian teachings familiar to those who have grown up with them. There is barely any theology, certainly no Trinity, let alone any clear statement of Jesus’s relation to it; and not a word on his mother’s progress from Immaculate Conception to heavenly assumption. Consider how the very doctrine of heaven, and the soul’s expected journey there, has long motivated Christian ethics. Yet if the books of the New Testament inform church teachings on the soul’s immortality then they also present alarming inconsistencies. The Judaic origins of Christianity are hard to miss, and yet the Old Testament introduces as much confusion as clarity, if only because its world filled with competing deity challenges Christianity’s essential monotheism. The sources of this and other core doctrines must be found elsewhere in the broader Hellenistic culture. It was from Platonism that Christian theology was first borrowed and then debated and transformed. Rediscovering the Platonic influence on early Christianity opens up a world of Hellenistic philosophy that has profoundly influenced Western civilization in ways long since forgotten or obscured.

See another introduction here.

Session 1 | From Plato to hellenistic judaism

Orpheus charms the beasts (source: Dallas Museum of Art)

We start with the parallel histories of Jewish and Greek religion before their confluence around 330 BC when the conquests of Alexander created the Hellenistic world. Both traditions begin with legends of gods and of their interactions with humans. For the Greeks, change came in the 5th century BC with the emergence of philosophy and the mystery cults. These would influence Plato’s dialectic method of inquiry where the soul aims to envisage the formal nature of reality, including, ultimately, the mystical unary formal creator of all. We then consider how Plato influenced Hellenistic Platonism, stoicism and other schools of philosophy before we turn finally to their influenced on the Hellenistic Judaism out of which Christianity emerged.

Further Reading

Start with a Bible: If you already have a bible then note that Anglican versions (e.g., ‘King James’ or ‘New Standard’) do not have the Book of Wisdom found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles. If you do not have a bible then The Good News Bible balances translates accurately into modern English. If you are a geek for the Greek then a good start is a Greek/English Interlinear New Testament.

For a taste of Judaism old and new, try reading different parts of the Bible. Start with the books of Moses by sampling Genesis or Exodus. Next read from any of the prophets. The prophesies of Isaiah are most pertinent to messianic Christianity. For Hellenistic Judaism, try The Book of Wisdom. This book was originally written in Greek under the titled Sophia, which was one reason the protestants removed it from their Bible. If that is what you have, then try Ecclesiastes instead.

For a history of Jewish religion, legends and culture, many publications will serve our purpose. Try for example The Jews: a history.

Early Greek philosophy only survives in fragment. For an introductory survey of these fragments, try Early Greek Philosophy by Jonathan Barnes.

Hellenistic philosophies also mostly only survive in fragments. For early and ‘middle’ Platonism, see Dillon’s collection and summary. For early Stoicism, A A Long’s Hellenistic Philosophy still provides one of the better overviews.

Session 2 | hellenistic judaism and early christianity

Depiction of Roman soldiers taking the loot from the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 AD (Arch of Titus, Rome)
Roman soldiers taking away the loot after destroying the 2nd Temple in 70 AD (Arch of Titus, Rome)

The Hellenization of Judaism occurred on many levels. We consider the significance of the Torah’s translation into Greek and the widespread Greek literacy among Jews. We consider how allegorical interpretation of scriptures was used to bring Platonic concepts into Judaism. And we consider the Hellenistic influences on emerging sects such as the Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees. The Pharisee in particular had close affinities with the first Christians. In the New Testament, affinities with Hellenistic philosophy is mostly implicit but there is also direct explicit engagements with the schools. Finally, we notice how the Hellenistic aspects of Apostolic Christianity contributed to its break with Judaism right at the time of Judaism’s own transformation after the Romans destroyed their temple in 70 AD.

Further Reading

For an introduction to early Christian doctrine, there are a number of good choices, see for example J N D Kelly.

For how the gospels developed and evolved, it is hard to come by good introductions to modern philological understandings. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus gives a insight into the scholarship. Also helpful, brief (and less controversial!) is Marvin Meyer’s introduction to the Gospel of St Thomas.

For the development of the Christian Canon see Barton’s A History of the Bible. For collections of non-canonical Christian and (contemporaneous Jewish) writings, see The Other Bible, The Other Gospels or A New Eusebius.

For early hints of the break with Judaism, see the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles from Chapter 9 (the conversion of Saul), then move on to the letters of Paul to the congregations in Rome and Corinth.

For examples of Jewish Apocalyptic literature see the Bible’s Book of Daniel Chaper 7. Also very influential but not in the Bible is the Book of Enoch, which can be found in many collections of apocrypha. For a Christian Hellenistic Apocalypse, see what was revealed to John in last book of the Bible.

Session 3 | The divine logos: through him all things were made

The Gospel of St John from the Tyndale Bible
Prologue to the Gospel of Saint John in the Tyndale Bible

Before the Christian Trinity was the earlier Christian doctrine of the divine father/son interpreted to express the Platonic principle of creation whereby the original unity (the father) emanates by means of its immanent logos-son. Beginning with the problem of self-creation in monotheism, we consider how this was presented and resolved in Platonism, and then move to consider some of its misunderstandings and corruptions in the endless Trinitarian controversy.

Further Reading

For logos-as-ratio in Platonic philosophy, see ‘The Pythagorean Doctrine’ by Simone Weil, which is Chapter XI in Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks. London: Routledge, 1957.

For an introduction to geometric emanationism, see Robert Lawlor’s Sacred Geometry : Philosophy and Practice. London: Thames & Hudson, 1982.

For some of the Platonic background to the original Trinitarian controversy, see Christopher Stead’s ‘The Platonism of Arius’ in The Journal of Theological Studies, 1964, 16–31.

For a collection of the surviving texts of the original Trinitarian 4th Century Trinitarian (Arian) Controversy see The Trinitarian Controversy by Rusch.

Session 4 | Mythos: teaching and interpreting allegorically

Last Judgment, Giotto, 1306, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Last Judgment, Giotto (1306) Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

If all knowledge is divine, and the higher wisdom is unsayable, then special techniques are required in the teaching. Allegory has the power to show what cannot be said. We consider some allegories of Plato that have great affinity with later Christian stories and doctrines. Then we consider how allegorical interpretation of scripture was used by the early Church fathers to bring Platonic teachings into the doctrinal mainstream.

Further Reading

For Plato’s myth of the soul’s journey after death, see the Phaedo, p. 107c to 115a. For other Platonic myths of the immortal soul, see: the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic, p. 614-621; The Winged Chariot in the Phaedrus, p. 246a to 254e.

For comparison with the canonical Christian eschatology, see Ch. 20-22 of the last book of the Bible, The Revelations of John.

For an introductions to ancient religious scepticism, see Battling the Gods by Tim Whitmarsh. For an introduction to epistemological scepticism in the Socratic-Platonic tradition, see The Sceptics by R J Hankinson. For the sociological approach to knowledge in Roman literature, see Titus Livy’s History of Rome, Book 1, where he discusses the value of Numa’s introduction of religion. For the Renaissance revival of the sociological approach, see Machiavelli’s Discourses on the first 10 books of Titus Livy, Book 1, Discourses 11-15.

For the exclusion of poets and poetry from Plato’s Republic, see its Book III, p. 386-392, and then Book X, p. 595-608.

For Plato’s use of allegory to show higher truths, see where the allegorical section begins with the Ship of State in Book 6, p. 487, and continues through to the Cave Allegory, ending at p. 521.

For parables of Jesus giving likenesses of the Kingdom of God, see the Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 13.

For the textual context of Philo the Jew of Alexandria, see Ch. 3 of Dillon’s The Middle Platonists.

For the old Jewish story of Hagar and Ishmael, see Genesis Ch. 16. For Philo’s allegorical interpretation, see his On the Cherubim pt. II & III. See also his On Sobriety Pt. II. For Paul’s new Christian interpretation of this story, see his letter to Galatians, Ch. 4.

Session 5 Mysticism and negative theology

Platonic mysticism finds a route to Medieval and Renaissance Christian mystics through a lineage that includes writings accepted as Christian, but that show little more than a nominal attachment to the teachings of Jesus.

Further Reading

For Paul’s engagement with Greek Philosophy in Athens, see Acts of the Apostles Ch 17 16-34

‘The Mystical Theology’ of Pseudo-Dionysius is in The Classics of Western Spirituality collection. The translation by Rolt includes an inspired introduction.

For the NeoPlatonists on the mystical One, see Plotinus, The Enneads, especially III.8. For Proclus’s account of the One and its emanation, see the first chapters of The Elements of Theology.

For Beguine writings, see the collection in Beguine Spirituality and also Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls. For Meister Eckhart, start with the Penguin Books selection.

For Nicolas of Cusa, see any of the translations by Hopkins, but start with On Learned Ignorance.

Session 6 Christianity as old as creation

Christianity’s borrowings from outside its Judeo-Christian narrative have always sat uncomfortably with its claim to exclusive revelations of divine truth. From the very beginning, and down through the centuries, Christian apologists have used a variety of strategies to account for the transmission of Greek wisdom in their teachings. Sometimes it was said that wisdom was given to the Greeks by the Christian God to smooth the way for his similar (but somehow more profound) revelations through the Christ. At other times the claim to exclusivity was softened. In the Renaissance it was almost entirely removed with the notion that essential divine teachings have been passed down from the earliest times through all the great and ancient traditions. That is, just before the Reformation came crashing through, there briefly flourished an image of Christianity inclusive of other traditions and as old as creation itself.

Further Reading

A good place to start with the early church view of Christianity’s ancient heritage is the first Book of Eusebius’s The History of the Church.